November 19th, 2010

McNeil prison headlines spark memories

> News today that the state Department of Corrections will close McNeil Island Corrections Center brought back memories of my days as press secretary as Uncle Duane Berentson sought the Republican nomination for governor in 1980. I didn’t make many road trips with Duane, but a memorable adventure I did share with him was a visit to McNeil Island, home of a one-time federal prison. McNeil Island, opened as a federal prison in 1875, was sitting vacant during the tenure of colorful Governor Dixy Lee Ray. In a day when state prisons were dangerously overcrowded, Duane argued that the governor should talk the feds into turning the island facility over to the state so it could again serve as a prison. I shot the above photo in a McNeil Island cell block as Duane toured the prison. A newspaper clipping I have from the Whidbey News-Times, June 25, 1980 quotes Duane charging that Ray’s refusal to consider McNeil Island as a prison was yet another example of her arrogance. “The governor should climb into her canoe (she often canoed around the Sound from her Fox Island home, located near McNeil Island) and paddle over to see the McNeil Island prison herself,” he is quoted as saying. Duane lost his primary battle to King County Executive John Spellman, who went on to win the general election. A year later, the state Transportation Commission named him Secretary of Transportation, a role he filled for 12 years. As for McNeil Island, it was ultimately deeded over to the state in 1981, serving as a prison to this day. Plans now call for the minimum security prison to be closed in two phases next year. Maybe next time I visit it will be as a tourist checking out “the prison with two lives.”

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About Photographer Steve Berentson

A fourth generation Skagit County native who was moved kicking and screaming from this island community in 1960. I finally reclaimed an Anacortes address in 1980, and I have been in constant celebration of my return since that time. Many of us who call Anacortes home love Fidalgo Island for its natural assets: among them are rugged beaches, pristine lakes, thousands of acres of forestland and some awesome views of the Skagit Valley and surrounding islands. Another element of my love affair with this community is its people, both natives and immigrants. They will “star” in many of my journal entries.

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